What Americans Need to Know About Religion (Huffington Post)

October 6, 2010
By tomsander

Flickr photo by Brian H

Diane Winston, discussing the recent Pew survey on religious literacy writes:

The focus on factoids obscures a central challenge of the 21st century: negotiating the absolute conflict of multiple religious absolutes.

That’s a hard lesson for many Americans, whose deepest religious value is a laissez-faire tolerance for religious difference — except when those differences threaten the small-”c” conservative status quo, as Muslims, Mormons and some gay Christians can attest. But sociologists say the trend overall, and especially among the young, is to live and let live. In “American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us,” authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell call that the “Aunt Susan effect.” Aunt Susan may be a lesbian, Sufi or atheist, but her innate goodness makes it hard to believe she’ll spend an eternity in hell.

“You know that your faith says … she’s not going to heaven, but I mean come on,” Putnam recently told NPR. “[It’s] Aunt Susan, you know, and if anybody’s going to heaven it’s Aunt Susan. So every American is sort of caught in this dilemma, that their theology tells them one things, but their personal experience tells them to be more tolerant.”

The authors say increased tolerance may explain why so many Americans claim no religious affiliation. According to Putnam and Campbell, a growing number of young people are opting out of church, enacting a “quiet backlash” against the increasing identification between conservative religion and the Republican Party. The number of “nones,” as the unaffiliated are called, used to hover around 5 percent of the population. Now between 35 and 40 percent of younger Americans say belong to this group.

American Grace looks to be a treasure trove for coverage on religion and American life. Among its findings are that young people are more opposed to abortion than their families but more accepting of gay marriage; that Jews are the most broadly popular religious group in America today; and that personal interfaith ties are growing. All these developments sound much more promising for intelligent reporting than the river of recent laments about religious illiteracy.

Read the full blog post: “What Americans Need to Know About Religion” (Diane Winston, Huffington Post)


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